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Can’t keep a good team down

April 2020

This section of track on NS’ A Line, east of Chattanooga near Ooltewah, Tennessee, is covered with trees blown down by a severe storm system that raked the South earlier this week. NS Engineering Department forces moved in quickly with backhoes, excavators, material handling trucks, and chain saws to restore service on the line.

NS responds quickly to keep trains moving after severe storms

As if COVID-19 challenges weren’t enough, Mother Nature heaped on during the Easter holiday, with heavy rain, high winds, and tornadoes across the South slowing operations on four Norfolk Southern divisions.

Train delays, however, did not last long – the determined, action-ready railroaders at NS made sure of that. In what Mike Farrell, SVP operations and mechanical, called a “miraculous recovery,” the railroad had cleaned up, repaired, and had most trains back on plan within 24 to 36 hours later.

“The entire operations team did a great job keeping everything rolling,” Farrell said. “We appreciate what the employees are doing to keep the network open and our customers served.”

Engineering Department forces took center stage as personnel across the Alabama, Piedmont, Pocahontas, and Georgia operations divisions fanned out across their territories to check for damages as the storm tracked across the South between Easter Sunday morning and mid-day Monday. All said and done, the engineering forces cleared more than 1,600 trees that had blown down and were blocking track. They also repaired 11 track washouts caused by heavy rain and flooding.

“Our employees did a phenomenal job responding on Easter Sunday and working through the night and into late Monday afternoon to get everything back in service,” said Ed Boyle, vice president engineering. “It just shows their dedication. I can’t say enough about how well the team did executing to get the railroad back in business, and doing it safely.”

Over a 24-hour period, NS tracked an unprecedented number of AccuWeather SkyGuard severe-weather alerts – more than 400 across the railroad’s territories – as the storm system moved through, Boyle said. NS sustained multiple tornadoes on our property, he added. On some of the most heavily impacted mainlines, including the AGS North between Irondale, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, track gangs arrived at nearly inaccessible sites to find miles of track buried under twisted piles of trees.

“These kind of storms are unpredictable, so those AccuWeather alerts helped us decide where and when to go,” said Paul Anderson, division engineer on the Alabama Division. “We don’t want to be out in front of a tornado or in the middle of one. We try to come in right behind the storms so we can assess damage and direct resources where they most need to go.”

On the Alabama Division, where impacts were widespread, engineering personnel on every territory swooped in behind the storm to patrol tracks for damage caused by flash flooding or tornadoes, Anderson said.

“It was a tremendous effort,” Anderson said. “We’re all challenged right now with COVID-19 going on at the same time, but the Engineering Department has an excellent team committed to serving our customers and moving trains efficiently and safely. Everybody’s on board with making sure we all do our part to keep the trains running.”

Across operations, many other departments played key roles to weather the storm and keep trains on plan, including our transportation forces, who are essential to the country’s economic supply-chain pipeline.

“We have the best transportation team in the business,” said Pat Whitehead, vice president transportation. “We’ve been counting on our team to keep the vital goods moving for the nation through all of this, and they have delivered. It’s really a credit to the dedication of our train and engine crews, yardmasters and trainmasters, and all transportation personnel to keep the trains moving.”

To prepare for power outages caused by falling trees, employees in communications and signals hustled to get generators in the field and ready to run. As the storm passed through, mechanical crews assisted several train crews that encountered issues, including a few cases of a train striking a tree that had fallen across the tracks.

“Really, it’s hats off to the C&S and mechanical teams,” said Tom Schnautz, VP advanced train control. “They did a great job responding throughout the storm.”

Dispatch teams in the network operating center stayed on top of the situation, controlling the flow of traffic before, during, and after the storm passed across a huge swath of NS’ territory.

“The NOC team did an amazing job working through this,” said Greg Comstock, vice president network operations. “We’re proud of the teams in the field getting this cleaned up for us.”

As Farrell summed it up: “We’re much stronger as a team than we are individually, and this truly was a great team effort – one team, one fight.”

NS Engineering Department forces on the Alabama Division discovered this washout on the AGS North Line near Attalla, Alabama, after the storm system moved through. They used rotary dump trucks and Gradall railway maintenance equipment to rebuild the rail bed with ballast.